Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

When Disney started releasing live-action remakes of their animated films, I honestly wasn’t really interested in watching any of them, as I didn’t see the point. This trend continued with the 2017 live-action remake of the 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast film until I decided to watch it as part of my in-flight entertainment during a recent trip. While the praise behind the remake isn’t completely undeserved, it doesn’t do too much to separate itself from the original, almost to the point where you may wonder why they even bothered to remake it in the first place.

In 18th-century France, an enchantress named Agathe (Hattie Morahan), disguised as an old beggar, arrives at a ball and offers a young prince (Dan Stevens) a rose in exchange for shelter. When he refuses, she curses the prince, transforming him into a beast and his servants and guests into household furniture, while erasing the castle from the memories of their loved ones. This curse can only be lifted if the prince finds true love before the last petal falls from her rose, or else everyone under the curse will lose their humanity forever. Years later, in the village of Villeneuve, Belle (Emma Watson), a known bookworm, brushes off the advances of the arrogant Gaston (Luke Evans), who has just returned from war. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), gets lost in the forest and seeks refuge in the Beast’s castle, but is imprisoned for stealing a rose during his attempt to leave. Belle searches for him and, upon finding him in the dungeon, has the Beast agree to let her take her father’s place.

The remainder of the story is largely the same as the original movie. However, this version of the story does include some differences in an attempt to stand out. Some of the smaller changes include Gaston’s role as a hunter is now that of a former soldier and there is a new scene where Belle is showing a girl how to read, only for the other villagers to discourage the attempt. Additionally, the Beast is now well-read and able to discuss literature with Belle as a bonding point. Some of the smaller changes also attempt to fill minor plot holes, including how the villagers are able to find the Beast’s castle near the end of the story.

Belle (Emma Watson; right) bonds with the Beast (Dan Stevens; left) in his castle.

Of course, there are also some larger changes to the plot, which seem to appear somewhat as an attempt to answer lingering questions raised by the original. This includes a mystery of the whereabouts of Belle’s mother and why she lives alone with her father, Maurice. The answer involves the introduction of a new plot device which may raise a new question to the viewer and the new knowledge of what happened to Belle’s mother comes off as a little underwhelming. In addition, the enchantress now has somewhat of a larger role in the story, though to say how would involve spoilers (though this could be said of a lot of the other changes as well).

There is one particular change that I feel worth at least mentioning, as it has to do with the setting. In this version of the movie, the character LeFou (Josh Gad) is now more explicitly gay as opposed to supposed undertones in the original version. While LeFou doesn’t come out as gay, given that the movie takes place in 18th-century France, it would be unlikely that a gay person at the time would be able to display their sexuality without dire consequences. Even then, the hype over LeFou’s sexuality didn’t seem worth it, considering the payoff is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment mere seconds before the credits roll.

Outside of the different yet very similar story, the casting choices were pretty good overall. Emma Watson, best known for her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter film series, was a surprisingly good choice for Belle and her singing is rather decent for an amateur. Dan Stevens also does well as both the Prince and the Beast, as he complements Emma Watson’s Belle pretty well. Like Emma Watson, his singing is also pretty decent for someone who had no real singing experience beforehand.

Two other standout actors are Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou, who make the most of their roles and complement their performances well. Unlike Watson and Stevens, the two of them have had prior experience singing in musicals. Luke Evans had starred in productions for musicals such as Rent and Avenue Q for London’s West End before he made a leap to films, one of the more recent being the role of Dracula in the failed Dracula Untold. Josh Gad is perhaps best known for his role as Olaf in Disney’s Frozen, likely a reason he was cast as LeFou, though he is also fairly well-known for his role as Elder Cunningham in the adult-oriented musical The Book of Mormon, in which he also displayed great singing talent.

Luke Evans (left) and Josh Gad (right) are good in their roles as Gatson and LeFou.

Music is very important to Beauty and the Beast, given that it’s based on the original Disney animated musical. For the most part, the soundtrack is the same and the cast does a good job singing it. Naturally, there are also some original songs to help make it stand out from the original, including the placement of songs in a couple places originally non-musical, one of which is the moment when the Beast sends Belle away from the castle. Where he originally roared in agony, he now sings the original “Nevermore.” It should also be noted that some of the plot differences lead to slightly altered lyrics on some songs, which feels fairly appropriate to do.

A lot of the budget also clearly went into the visuals, especially the CGI and the period clothing. Dan Stevens’ Beast is rendered with very good CGI, although the more humanlike approach to his design can be off-putting to some viewers. This commentary on design could easily be extended to the servants of the castle while they are household objects. I was able to get used to them, but I know that others may not feel the same way due to the approach taken by the artists. One scene in particular where the CGI stands out is the “Be Our Guest” sequence, which features a lot of unique visuals and movement on a level similar to the animated version.

When it comes to my thoughts on Beauty and the Beast (2017), I can easily understand why it’s popular. The story is one with a lot of romance, the music is great, the casting is well-done and the visuals create a sense of wonder and draw viewers into an intriguing world. In short, it has all of the right elements coming together in the right way, maybe even enough to be nominated during award season. However, even with all of the changes made to the story, both major and minor, which extend the runtime by about 45 minutes, the 2017 live-action version of Beauty and the Beast still sticks so closely to the 1991 animated original that I wonder why they even bothered to remake it in the first place. The 2017 version will appeal to the whole family, but you might as well just watch the 1991 version instead.

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